Ship takes you back 200 years

By Rebecca Sloan

Sail on the Niagara as crew or passengers

Life for sailors aboard a 19th-century ship was difficult and dangerous.

ERIE, Pa. — It’s easy to romanticize about daily life on a 19th-century sailing ship.

The billowing canvas, the weather-beaten captain planted at the wheel, the heroic sailors risking life and limb — these are the images that come to mind.

In reality, though, life on board was often anything but romantic.

The quarters were crowded, the food was terrible and the work was tedious and sometimes dangerous.

You’ll get a better sense of this when you step aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara, a reproduction 1813 sailing vessel whose homeport is the dock outside the Erie Maritime Museum in Erie, Pa.

As a tour guide shows you around the ship and tells about 1800s sailing life, you’ll experience firsthand the challenges faced by 19th-century sailors.

Below deck, the low ceilings will force you to crouch to avoid a bump on the noggin, and above deck, the maze of ropes and rigging will confound you.

How did they ever keep all these ropes from getting tangled?

Meanwhile, the sleeping arrangements on board will make you thank your lucky stars for your spacious four-poster at home.

Nineteenth-century sailors slept in narrow hammocks inches from the next guy and — due to infrequent bathing and hard labor — the “next guy” usually didn’t smell very nice.

Some of that hard labor included practice runs at loading the ship’s cumbersome cannons.

The crew had to be able to fire cannonballs as fast as lightning during battle — their lives depended on it — and back in 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry kept his men busy with practice runs day after day after day.

In case you don’t know, Perry was the guy who defeated the British at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, and the original Niagara was Perry’s relief flagship.

Because the original ship was heavily damaged during the conflict, the U.S. Navy sank the vessel in 1820.

Today’s reproduction Niagara was completed in 1990, but from the tips of her tall masts to the graceful reach of her jib, she’s exactly like the original.

And just like the original, she manages to evoke some of the romantic ideals mentioned earlier.

Even after an education on the dangers and drudgeries of 1800s sailing life, you can’t help but feel a bit dazzled by Niagara.

Just ask anybody who’s ever seen the ship glide into homeport with her white sails puffed like downy pillows and her sleek stem slicing the blue waves.

The sight is breathtaking and inspiring, and it makes you want to travel back to 1813 and join the crew no matter how narrow the hammock or how hard the labor.

The good news is that you can join the crew without the benefit of time travel.

For about $70, you can sail for a day on Niagara. During an outing you’ll learn sailing-related curriculum such as hauling lines and setting sails. You’ll also learn more about the Battle of Lake Erie and the War of 1812.

Or, if you want to avoid the dirty work, you can sail on Niagara as a passenger and sit back and observe the action.

Each sailing day differs based on the weather and the training needs of the crew.

For die-hard sailing enthusiasts, two- to four-week-long “live-aboard” programs are also available.

Theses programs allow people age 16 and older to live aboard Niagara and sail the Great Lakes while learning traditional seamanship skills.

Participants must be able to pass a physical exam and be serious about performing tasks on board.

Both day outings and live-aboard programs fill up quickly, so if you’re interested in either, it’s best to book a year in advance.

Call (814) 452-2744 for more information.

As mentioned earlier, Niagara’s homeport is the dock just outside the Erie Maritime Museum, but she’s often away from port, so call ahead and check her schedule if you want to see her.

When not in port, Niagara sails the Great Lakes and beyond. She’s even ventured into the Atlantic.

Of course, even if Niagara isn’t in port, the Erie Maritime Museum itself is worth a visit.

Housed in a spacious warehouse-type building on the sparkling shores of Presque Isle Bay, the museum opened in 1998.

Through interactive exhibits, historical artifacts and dramatic videos, the museum welcomes visitors to explore Erie’s role in Great Lakes history, particularly the city’s role in the War of 1812.

Although the infamous Battle of Lake Erie was fought Sept. 10, 1813, near Put-in-Bay at the western end of the lake, Erie had a vital role in the War of 1812.

In hopes of regaining Lake Erie from British control, President James Madison decided a naval fleet should be constructed in Erie.

Erie shipbuilder Daniel Dobbins and New York shipbuilder Noah Brown supervised construction of four schooner-rigged gunboats and two brigs.

Meanwhile, Perry came to Erie to command a squadron.

Most of the men in the squadron were Pennsylvania farm boys or Revolutionary War veterans with no naval training, but Perry whipped the crew into shape and won the Battle of Lake Erie against great odds.

Many of the exhibits in the museum focus on the battle.

A reconstructed midship section of the Lawrence, Perry’s first flagship during the battle, is on display.

This reconstructed midship section is complete with mast, spars and rigging, and a portion of it is riddled with cannon shot.

The shots were fired from the reproduction Niagara during a National Guard training session.

The “live fire” exhibit illustrates the violence of the 1813 battle that left 68 men dead and 189 wounded.

Another prominent museum exhibit focuses on another famous Erie ship — the USS Wolverine.

The Wolverine was completed in 1843 in Erie and was the U.S. Navy’s first iron-hulled warship.

Previously called the USS Michigan, the Wolverine traveled the Great Lakes during the Civil War to protect against potential Confederate attacks from Canada.

The Wolverine was decommissioned in 1912 and cut up and sold for scrap during the 1940s. However, the decorative prow of the vessel was saved, and it now rests inside the museum.

The museum also features many smaller exhibits that are just as interesting. Among these are numerous paintings, weaponry, ship models and ship artifacts.

One exhibit focuses on Navy admirals who were born in Erie.

Erie is known as the “mother-in-law of the U.S. Navy” because eight admirals were born and reared here — more than in any other U.S. city.

Another exhibit examines the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.